‘I am on the side of those who are oppressed.’ – Aimé Césaire
Aimé Césaire, the great poet, politician and playwright, was born in Martinique on 26 June, 1913. He died in 2008.
He shall be forever associated with the philosophy of negritude that he espoused with a huge impact on the francophone black world from the 1930s onwards. On the wave of Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey’s ‘Back to Africa’ movement, negritude was a banner for ‘black consciousness’ avant la lettre, a rejection of and a riposte to disabling white mythologies. It straddled both a political project and a poetic renewal, confronting the violence of colonialism with cataclysmic passion.
Negritude sought to ‘decolonize the mind’, intransigent in its fidelity to the ‘invulnerable idea’ of justice.
Césaire was one of the first to show that the Empire ‘writes back.’ The director Antoine Vitez hailed him as ‘our black Shakespeare’. The phrase is well deserved. Just as the ‘upstart crow’ grammar school boy and player from Stratford ruffled the feathers of the prickly university wits and shook the scene of a jealous world of power and patronage, so Césaire, the colonial scholarship student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the black activist abused as a ‘sale nègre’, would ‘strike a mental wave against the rock of the world’. He was a member of the avant-garde, linked with the surrealists and Picasso.
The poet André Breton described Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to my Native Land as the ‘greatest lyrical monument of our times.’ Césaire was a great scholar, a founder and editor of journals, radical politician, mayor of Fort de France and a member of the French senate who joked about being descended from cannibals.
He wrote a triptych of three great anti-colonial dramas. The Tragedy of King Christophe documents the tragedy of post-colonial nation-building in Haiti after the epic of a liberation struggle. ‘In Haiti,’ said Césaire, ‘negritude stood up for the first time and proclaimed its faith in its humanity.’ He hailed the liberating revolution of the ‘black jacobins’ in Saint Domingue (as Haiti was then known) who created the first independent black state in the modern era. But the play, while affirming the vitality of non-western cultural forms, stands as a warning from history against post-colonial misrule.
A Season in the Congo, which is just about to open at the Young Vic in London, simultaneously lionizes Patrice Lumumba and documents the chaos and corruption in newly independent Congo.
A Tempest (which I translated for publication by Oberon Books) is an anti-colonialist adaptation of Shakespeare’s island fling. No longer a ‘salvage and deformed slave’, Caliban is re-cast as hero whose first word is Uhuru (Swahili for freedom).
In each play, cultural resistance and resurrection is founded upon Africa, and not an imposed western culture. A revered nature, together with African and creole rites and rituals, provide solace and transcend the destructive legacies of colonialism.
Césaire’s negritude is grounded in a profound historical consciousness which identifies a common past of suffering experienced by the African diaspora worldwide at the hands of imperialists and slavers.
In a world where the scandal of ethnic and religious hatred, colonial domination and abuse of power endure, the need for the poet to pour a balm upon the world remains as urgent as ever – however agitated that act of pouring may be. Césaire led the struggle against oppression, against cultural amnesia and silence and thus replaced humiliation with hope and dignity, seeking to supplant abusive hegemony and hierarchy with solidarity.
As the centenary of his birth approaches, it is right to celebrate and give thanks for this great poet, politician and playwright: a visionary of the human spirit.
Celebrate the centenary of the birth of Aimé Césaire with leading international scholars and a performance at the French Institute in London on Monday 24 June, 2013. Find out more at the French Institute’s website.